Whether you are gardening or farming, understanding when is harvest season can be important for cultivars and garden growers. Both culturally and practically, the specifics of harvest season are highly significant to many people here in the UK.
Polytunnels are in some respects revolutionizing modern farming, and are overhauling the concept of the traditional harvest season. With polytunnels, we are far less beholden to the vicissitudes of the seasons and can grow and harvest many crops over a much longer time period than ever before.
As times continue to change rapidly in agriculture and in smaller-scale food production, looking at what we mean traditionally, and for the future, by harvest season can help us to make sense of the many changes as they come our way.
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Traditional, When is Harvest Season in the UK?
The traditional harvest season in the UK was a period towards the end of the growing season when many major crops come to fruition and are ready to pick, reap or gather in to put up and store for the winter or to use over the colder months to come.
Months of Harvest in the UK:
Traditionally, harvest season in the UK stretched from early summer throughout the warmest part of the year and into early autumn. The main period of harvesting was concentrated in the latter part of the growing season – mostly through August and into September and sometimes early October.
While the precise periods of harvesting would of course depend on the crops that were grown and the location – with much variation between different regions of the British Isles – everyone traditionally united during this period of late summer and early autumn to gather in the harvest.
Harvest Festival Day:
Traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest the harvest moon – the full moon occurring closest to the autumnal equinox – ‘harvest home’ was the festival celebrated towards the end of September to celebrate the harvest being successfully brought in, often between the 21st and 23rd of September.
The timing though would vary, and communities would celebrate only when the last of their crops were brought ‘home’. Within the Christian calendar, all would be concluded by St Michael’s Mass, on the 29th September, also known as Michaelmas, which signified the end of the harvest period.
With most of the sowing taking place in the spring, many harvests were traditionally reaped in the autumn. In fact, the word harvest comes from the word for the autumn season in old English.
Many traditional grain crops, vegetable crops and of course top fruits are harvested at this time of the year.
Of course, some crops were always harvested earlier, and some later. But in olden times people were in general much more dependent on the seasons, and late summer into early autumn was the time of true abundance in the traditional farming world. There are even some low maintenance plants that you can grow in a polytunnel all year round.
Meaning of Harvest in the UK:
It is easy today to underestimate the importance of the harvest for people throughout most of our history. As soon as agriculture took over from foraging and hunting, the harvest period came to take on immense importance, culturally, spiritually and practically.
Today, most people are distanced from the food they eat. But before our modern food systems took over and we had access to global food in abundance from supermarkets, people knew where their food came from, and knew that disaster was just one bad harvest away.
Their lives revolved around food production, around the turning of the seasons and the vagaries of the weather. Most people knew exactly where the food they consumed came from, and many walked the fields and gardens it grew in on a daily basis.
Harvest deities had to be appeased. Local spirits should be placated. And everyone understood the importance of getting the harvest in well and on time. Over the years, many fascinating rituals and customs emerged around this hugely important time of year.
Polytunnel Farming: A Modern Approach to Harvesting:
There have been numerous changes in farming over the years that have changed how crops are grown and the effort required to bring in harvests.
The trend to grow undercover in domestic polytunnels means that the times of harvest are changing too. Polytunnels expand the growing season and mean that harvests extend throughout the whole of the year.
Harvesting Polytunnel Produce:
Some of the popular crops to grow in polytunnels commercially include tomatoes, peppers and other warm season crops that have traditionally been more challenging to grow outdoors in our climate. In polytunnels, with an extended growing season, these warmer summer crops can thrive better than ever before.
Polytunnels also bring forward the harvesting period for popular crops – like strawberries for example. Polytunnel growing has dramatically increased the length of time for which locally-grown UK strawberries are available.
Growing Conditions in a Polytunnel:
In polytunnels, growing is decoupled from the potential problems that come from the weather conditions during different seasons outside.
In a polytunnel, growers are dealing with a controlled environment, where temperatures, humidity, airflow and a number of other factors can be carefully managed and maintained.
With increasingly common ‘weather weirding’ due to our climate crisis, to which agriculture is extremely vulnerable, polytunnels take out much of the worry for an increasing number of UK farmers, allowing food to be grown regardless, more or less, of what the weather is doing outside.
To maximise their yields, farmers can sow and plant into polytunnels not only in spring for late summer and autumn harvests, but also throughout the rest of the year.
Successional sowing techniques and summer, autumn and even winter sowing can keep polytunnels in use and potentially bring harvests for every single month of the year.
Sowing throughout the growing season means that there will be multiple harvest season periods and not just the one main traditional harvesting period. And polytunnel growing eliminates entirely the period in spring formerly known as the ‘hungry gap.’
Of course, growing undercover in polytunnels means that farmers and other growers will be entirely responsible for the water needs of their plants, rather than relying on natural rainfall.
Polytunnel growers can install overhead sprinkler watering systems, or stick with a manual watering system. But for sustainable water management, a drip irrigation system of some kind will usually be a good choice, and help to keep water use down.
Designing the Polytunnel Layout:
Polytunnel growers are of course always going to be somewhat restricted in the amount of space available to grow food. This is why it is so important for polytunnel growers to design the space carefully to optimise the layout and ensure that yields can be as high as possible.
It is of course important to think about sunlight, water, and all the important environmental factors, and to think carefully about practical matters like ventilation, access and growing space. The right layout will definitely maximize yields.
Crop rotation also has a major bearing on layout, and on the times of sowing and planting, and of harvests. In order to be able to harvest over multiple years without a decrease in yields, farmers have to consider rotating the growing areas used for specific plant families so that they are not grown in the same location over multiple years.
Time Management in Polytunnel Farming:
When working out the optimal design for a polytunnel, time management is something that should always be considered – especially in a commercial enterprise.
Systems analysis during the design phase for a polytunnel farm project should help you identify common pathways, and how different elements within the system interact. This should save time, as should permaculture zoning of the overall farm site.
Creating an accurate and regularly updated sowing, planting and harvesting calendar for a polytunnel will be important to make sure you can schedule all important work promptly and prioritise the most urgent tasks.
Good workflows for harvest time and a well-oiled system for harvesting and processing the produce picked will improve farm efficiencies and ensure that there is minimal to no waste within farm systems.
Companion Planting in a Polytunnel:
While it can be tempting for commercial polytunnel growers to keep things simple and grow mono-crop plantations, companion planting and organic growing are essential for the best possible results, short and longer term.
Companion planting can increase yields at harvest season significantly, and potentially ensure that harvest season can continue over a longer period of time.
Traditional harvest season may still sometimes be the period of highest yields, even in a polytunnel.
But polytunnel harvest season extends well beyond this traditional time and can allow us here in the UK to eat fresh, seasonal and local produce throughout the whole of the year.
The seasons do still have their importance, of course, but seasonal weather variations are fortunately no longer often a matter of life and death.
Traditional harvest season might have lost some of its cultural significance in our modern world, but we still need to pay attention to the patterns of the seasons in order to do the right thing and eat local here in the UK, whether our food is grown in polytunnels or not.
Lastly, for other relevant information on harvest farming and growing, learn about the food to table process.
What months do they harvest in the UK?
In the UK, the main harvest season typically begins in late July and can extend through October, depending on the crop. Cereals like wheat and barley are usually harvested from July to September, while root crops like potatoes and carrots might be harvested a bit later into the autumn.
What season is the harvest season?
The harvest season predominantly falls in the autumn. This is when many crops reach maturity and are ready to be gathered. However, it’s worth noting that some crops might be harvested in other seasons, depending on their planting time and growth cycle.
What month is harvest celebrated?
Harvest Festival in the UK is traditionally celebrated on the Sunday nearest to the Harvest Moon, which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. This usually falls in late September. However, the exact date can vary between churches and communities.
What is harvested in autumn UK?
In the UK, autumn is a significant time for harvesting a variety of crops. This includes cereals like wheat, barley, and oats; fruits like apples, pears, and plums; vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and onions; and other crops like sugar beet and pumpkins. Autumn is also the time for gathering nuts like hazelnuts and chestnuts.
Countryfile. (2022) Guide to the British Harvest Season: History and Traditions. Countryfile. [online] Available at: https://www.countryfile.com/how-to/food-recipes/british-harvest-how-long-does-the-season-last-when-is-harvest-day-plus-history-and-traditions/ [accessed 25/08/23]
Plumpton, H., Wentworth, J., (2019) Climate Change and Agrilculture. Post Parliament. [online] Available at: https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0600/ [accessed 25/08/23]
Traylor, R., (n.d.) Farm to Table: A Movement for Local and Organic Food. Webstaurant Store – Blog. [online] Available at: https://www.webstaurantstore.com/blog/4336/farm-to-table-meaning.html [accessed 25/08/23]
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.